Word Matters Podcast

How We Approach Compound Words

Word Matters, Episode 56

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We're back to the mailbag this week with two great user questions:

What makes a compound word worthy of dictionary entry?

Is there one correct way to spell 'yay'?

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: some questions from you. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. We all know what a word looks like. It's a group of letters, typically, including a vowel or two, and maybe, on occasion, a hyphen. Introduce a space into the mix, and you have not one word but two, right? And yet dictionaries, which are supposed to define individual words, define things like bread machine, which is two words. What is up with that? Let us explain.

Ammon Shea: Roy has written in with question about vernacular from science fiction, specifically, time machine, and Roy writes, "This, of course, is not a word per se, but a two-word phrase that is commonly understood to mean a specific thing." He writes, "Time machine is, in fact, a single dictionary entry despite being constructed from two clearly understood words whose meanings do not change as part of the phrase. Which then got me thinking, what qualifies time machine, or as it happens, pen machine for a single entry but leaves bread machine ineligible?" Excellent question.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a great question.

Ammon Shea: Although I have to say I do not agree that these are two clearly understood words whose meaning do not change as part of the process. I think because we are familiar with the concept of time machine and we now have an association with it, that we have assigned a specific meaning to it and we are thinking of that as commonly understood. However, if there had been no time machines up to this point and we had just suddenly started putting these two words together, it could mean, for instance, a machine that makes time.

Peter Sokolowski: Right because a bread machine is a machine that makes bread.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: You're coming at this from the angle of meaning, and there's another angle which is the angle work, the editorial principle, the style file for Merriam-Webster editors. And Emily, you know the rule.

Emily Brewster: I do, we call these compound terms, and compound terms can either be smooshed up together the way that schoolbus is, or they can have a hyphen between them, or they can have a space between them. The laypeople tend to think of the one with the space between it as being two different words; we consider them one word, or I fall back on term instead because people get all hung up on a word not having any spaces in it. But, to us, a word or a term is a set of sounds that has its own meaning that is not constructable from its elements.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: Now, do we extend that same label to idioms?

Peter Sokolowski: No, no, no, I don't think so. I think what Emily is talking about is any number of what you might call terms or words that form a compound carrying a single meaning. Whereas an idiom is, actually, usually the metaphorical use of a concrete noun, but within a phrase. The fact is it's not substitutable as a single part of speech.

Ammon Shea: Hence if you had a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, that would be distinct as an idiom.

Peter Sokolowski: That's an idiom.

Ammon Shea: However, if you spelled bird bath as two distinct words, we would still consider that a word.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely, absolutely. The thing is what I was getting at, Emily, and I know that you know this rule as a definer, is what we call SE in the office, which is self-evident. If a compound, as Emily just described, is self-evident, then the rule originally, as laid down by Philip Gove in the 1950s, was it does not get entered in the dictionary to save space. Bread machine is not in the dictionary, tomato juice is not in the dictionary, cattle ranch is not in the dictionary because you can look up cattle and you can look up ranch and you can derive the meaning. However, dude ranch is in the dictionary because there's nothing you can find at dude or at ranch would tell you that this is a place where city people go to behave like country people.

Emily Brewster: As opposed to being a ranch where dudes are cared for and cultivated.

Peter Sokolowski: You would understand it improperly if you went by the two separate definitions.

Emily Brewster: Right, now we also say SE is self-evident or self-explanatory. I think that's the gloss that I typically give it, self-explanatory. Pen machine, by the way, we do define at its own place, at its own entry, we shorthand lexicography speak its own place. It's got its own place entry. A pen machine is not a machine that makes or provides pens. A pen machine is a machine for ruling, like making straight lines with pens.

Peter Sokolowski: I noticed that entry is from Webster's Third, so it comes from a time when this print technology was very relevant and very important. It may not be the entry we'd add today, it seems arcane to me.

Ammon Shea: What I think is interesting about this is that we're still at this late date wrestling with the vestiges of print convention.

Peter Sokolowski: Print, absolutely.

Ammon Shea: That, to me, almost all of the words that I come across in the dictionary that are listed as SE, I always feel like there could be another meaning to that. I feel like almost nothing is actually SE and maybe that's my limited or perhaps overactive imagination, but I feel like I'm constantly coming across things. Not just in our dictionary, in any dictionary that has things as SE where I feel like I would like further explication of that.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, and so the original rule was to save space and it's absolutely true. The style file, the rules for writing definitions, the guidelines for editors at Merriam-Webster, I believe, at least 95% of them, were completely tied to print technology, to type setting and to saving space. We can blame a million things on that. The strange way we address capitalization, the very compact nature of most dictionary definitions, and untying that knot I think will take a generation or two. For example, orange juice was never an entry in our dictionaries until recently. We actually did add it simply because the words orange and juice appear together in English so frequently that on frequency alone, it merits an entry. So we are changing those rules.

Ammon Shea: This is not restricted to Merriam, by the way, I know that at Oxford, in some of the dictionaries, they would frequently define words that to the lay person or the average user of the dictionary, the reason for leaving things out for emissions is inexplicable. For instance, cherry pie was never defined, but apple pie was defined because apple pie comes up in as American as apple pie.

Peter Sokolowski: And that has a metaphorical meaning.

Ammon Shea: Well, of course, that makes sense. But if you're just looking up apple pie, then you look up cherry pie and you see one but not the other, this is not at all evident unless you read the front matter of the dictionary, which as we all know-

Peter Sokolowski: No one does.

Ammon Shea: ... it's the best place to ever hide anything.

Emily Brewster: It also is how we defend ourselves. But I would just want to make the point that this is not just about space constraints, it is also about editorial resources. If editors were going to spend their time, if we were going to give definers the job of, "Well, just define every common phrase even if it is self-explanatory," we would have no time to keep up with various new terms.

Ammon Shea: That is an excellent point, and it brings to mind the wonderful exchange that happened in the early 20th century between the Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and William Craigie. Which was that Murray was a somewhat irascible Scotsman who was not overly fond of William Craigie, who was one of his editors, the four main editors along with Murray. Because he thought he was putting in unnecessary information, and it wasn't just taking up time, it was taking up editorial resources, as Emily had so adroitly pointed out. One time Craigie put in the entry for a railway porter and his illustrative citation was he was a railway porter, and Murray flew into a fury.

He wrote, I think, it was an 11-page letter culminated with the line, "There is no part of my duties that is so onerous as that of checking your copy." I think it was partly spaced, again, but mostly I think it was just he felt it was a waste of their time.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, that brings up a great point, which is example sentences that are chosen, are chosen really carefully in order usually to illustrate the meaning that is given. In that case, you get nothing from that sentence. You could have replaced it with anything to use juice again, cranberry juice, tomato juice, apple juice. There, the juice of an apple, the juice of a tomato. But there is an entry at tobacco juice and the definition is "saliva colored brown by tobacco or snuff." When you spit it on a baseball field, it's called tobacco juice. In other words, it is not the juice of the tobacco leaf.

Ammon Shea: Which also has a synonym is ambeer, which is the spat out juice from tobacco.

Peter Sokolowski: Good Lord.

Ammon Shea: Emily, I was going to ask you, do you often or do you ever come across words in defining, since you are among us the chief definer, where you think this just does not need to be in here?

Emily Brewster: Oh, well, sure. When I come across an entry like pen machine, it seems like this term is probably not a term that is so prominent anymore that it needs coverage. But, I don't know, I think more often I come across things that I think need to be included. I have the opposite problem. This topic brings to mind a compound that I took great pleasure in defining a number of years ago, and that was the term hot mess. Something or someone that is emphatically a mess in organization or a number of different things. But the term hot mess is not a new term, but this use of hot mess was new.

In defining the term hot mess in this modern sense of something or someone that is not holding it down, not keeping it together, I became aware of the self-explanatory sense of hot mess that is much, much older. That goes back centuries. That is a dish of soft or pulpy food that is hot. At that point, when the word only had that meaning, it did not qualify for entry. It was not until hot mess took on this extended use that it met our criteria for entry.

Peter Sokolowski: And the original mess was messes in mess hall.

Emily Brewster: That's right, yep.

Ammon Shea: That reminds me of meltdown. Similarly, when it first came up, I think wouldn't have qualified because it was obvious, it was something melted down and it was used by ice cream manufacturers in the 1930s.

Peter Sokolowski: I think of it as something very dangerous.

Ammon Shea: Right, well, then in 1950s it was co-opted by the nuclear industry when the core would melt down and something, and now we use it where often as a breakdown of self-control if somebody has a meltdown. It's gone from open to hyphenated to close compound along the way. Just like hot mess at the beginning, I don't think it would've qualified.

Peter Sokolowski: Another one that has changed meaning is ground zero. Some would say misused epicenter, the actual point of origin of something such as an outbreak. Whereas initially it was the area of ground below the explosion of a nuclear device, which usually explodes somewhere in the air. So that's a meaning that has shifted and probably is understood in the newer way by most people.

Emily Brewster: Even in that original sense, that still would not be considered self-explanatory.

Peter Sokolowski: No, you needed a definition for sure. It reminds me of another compound of two words that clearly mean something different when they are used together, dad joke. Because if you can look up dad and look up joke, you will never really get the true meaning of this one. I have to give credit to Scott Simon of NPR, who pointed out to me that we didn't have a definition for this a couple years ago, and now we do. I love the idea of this challenge, which is to make a good definition of something to make it clear that this is not self-evident.

That a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words, and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny. It's a definition I'm proud of partly because we had the space now online to have a longer definition than was traditional. Also there's a lot of words in there like endearingly and wholesome that add a lot of flavor.

Ammon Shea: I'm sure that Roy, at this point, is really regretting his life choices in asking us this question. I don't remember who came up with this initially, somebody else pointed this out, and I'm very sorry for failing to credit them properly. But somebody pointed out the semantic difference between two seemingly self-explanatory things: booty call and butt dial. Now, these are both exactly pretty much the same in butt dial, booty call. They're both the posterior region and the act of making a phone call, but they have very, very different meetings.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: And were you to just say that one is self-explanatory, or both are self-explanatory and leave them unglossed....

Emily Brewster: Yeah, it's a really brilliant example because the reference of each element of each of those terms, the reference in its literal sense is identical.

Ammon Shea: Right, yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: It's the same.

Ammon Shea: So that, Roy, is why we do not leave these things out because otherwise you will end up making a booty call when you meant to butt dial.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with the spelling of yay. Yay. Word matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Upon receiving some happy news, an English speaker might shout out "yay!" But how would that person spell it? Y-A-Y works certain, but could they also spell it Y-E-A-H? What about Y-E-A? I'll sort it all out. We have another question from a writer named Connie. She writes, "It's what kids say when there is ice cream for dessert. I always spell it yay, Y-A-Y. Two friends I've received emails from this week diverged in their spellings, Y-E-A-H and Y-E-A. So she is asking what the deal is with these words? All right, my podcast companions, how do you spell the one that you say when you're happy about dessert?

Peter Sokolowski: Y-A-Y does seem to be the one.

Ammon Shea: Is H-U-Z-Z-A-H an option?

Peter Sokolowski: I would recognize it that way. It does seem celebratory and different from just an affirmation.

Ammon Shea: I would spell it Y-A-Y.

Emily Brewster: All right, that's how I would spell it also, and that is indeed the one that we define as an interjection, and we define it as used to express joy, approval, or excitement. I was shocked, I tell you, to learn that according to the current research, this word dates only to 1963.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow, really?

Emily Brewster: Yeah, so I don't know how people were expressing their great joy at having ice cream, but Y-E-A-H is a much older word, and we define it as an adverb meaning "yes." We also include the note it's often used sarcastically in phrases like yeah right and yeah sure to express doubt or disbelief. The OED dates that yeah right meaning only to like 1969.So yeah, Y-E-A-H, according to your friendly Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means yes, it is not an expression of joy, approval, or excitement. Now then there is also Y-E-A, also an adverb, and that means yes and that is super old. That dates to the 12th century, which doesn't seem too surprising, right? Yea sounds very old. It formerly was only used to answer a question that did not involve a negative.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right, okay.

Ammon Shea: You mean not yay or nay?

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: Nothing about ice cream?

Emily Brewster: No ice cream at all. You could say if you vote in favor say yea.

Peter Sokolowski: That's the yeas have it, if we make it a noun.

Emily Brewster: Right, the yeas have it. Yes, yes. But then there is also a Y-A-H that we define as an interjection that is entirely the opposite of what all of these mean. We define that as "used to express disgust, contempt, defiance, or derision."

Peter Sokolowski: Yah.

Ammon Shea: Yah.

Emily Brewster: Right. But the OED also includes an entry for Y-A-H that they define as an adverb and a noun that means yes.

Ammon Shea: Yah.

Peter Sokolowski: Yah.

Emily Brewster: Yah, right, and that of course makes me think of the German J-A word. That's how you write yes in German, ja.

Ammon Shea: They have much greater coverage of say regional dialects.

Emily Brewster: They do, and their note actually says "in early use, frequently in representations of German, Dutch, or Afrikaner speech."

Peter Sokolowski: It doesn't makes sense.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Peter Sokolowski: And those are cousin languages, of course.

Emily Brewster: Yes, yes, all clip simulated.

Peter Sokolowski: It's the same word phonetically.

Emily Brewster: That's right. That's right. But then they note that in Britain, from the 1980s onwards, it was particularly associated with upper class or upper middle class English speech.

Peter Sokolowski: No kidding.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, so for all of you who are using Y-A-H as an adverb or a noun to mean yes, that is kind of an uppity sort of a usage.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: A little posh of you.

Peter Sokolowski: A little posh. There's another entry that is related only phonetically to this, but I have to bring it up because it has maybe my favorite etymology in our dictionaries, and that is the entry in the Unabridged for Yé-Yé. Which is spelled with an E and an acute accent. That's the accent rising to the right, so it's spelled Y-E, with an accent, -Y-E, Yé-Yé as an adjective. The definition is "of relating to, or featuring rock and roll as it developed in France." The etymology reads French from the English expression, yeah-yeah. Exclamation often interpolated in rock and roll performances.

Ammon Shea: I like the juxtaposition of interpolated with rock and roll because it's-

Peter Sokolowski: Rock n' roll.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: I love Yé-Yé music anyway, but that's that funny entry in the Unabridged.

Emily Brewster: That's fantastic. I wonder if the band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, knows about Yé-Yé?

Peter Sokolowski: It's sort of a genre, as you might guess, so in France you would understand it to mean that poppy sound of the '60s.

Emily Brewster: Like Serge Gainsbourg?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, he wrote a lot of those songs and Françoise Pancrazzi who was maybe the leader of that pack, the young teenage singer of the early '60s.

Emily Brewster: So yeah for that and yay for Yé-Yé.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, lots of affirmation.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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